The Writing on the Wall

In her seminal work The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood imagined a theocracy that draws power through the subjugation of women, their bodies and their fertility. More than 30 years later, as our own government systematically strips rights from women, we revisit Atwood’s vision. We heed her warning.

If we have anything to learn from Offred, the protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s the value of vigilance. That, and the alarming precarity of freedoms and rights we too often take for granted.

Atwood’s prescient novel posits an American society not so different from our own, now shattered by the exploitations of a shadow government who use an Islamic terrorist attack as an excuse to restrict the liberty of its citizens. First there are identification cards, then food rations and curfews. From one day to the next, women are forbidden from working and find their access to money cut off. The president and members of Congress are assassinated, so those in power suspend the Constitution—a necessary security measure, they say.

After that, founding a patriarchal regime run by an extremist religious sect is relatively easy. In the Republic of Gilead, women have no recourse and no money of their own. Children are taken away from “unfit” mothers to be raised by true believers. Dissidents are disappeared, protesters shot, and men who attempt to escape the regime or who buck its restrictive doctrine are gruesomely executed and publicly displayed.

This piece appears in the Spring 2017 issue of Ms. Subscribe today to get a copy and become a member of the Ms. community!

Back in the old world, Offred had a life: a job, husband, daughter and name of her own. In this terrible new one, Offred is a handmaid, forced to take the name and obey the whims of her Commander, and bound in servitude to his Wife, for whom she must bear a child under threat of punishment, exile or worse.

By the time Offred realized the turn the world had taken, it was too late. There was no escape.

Today, Atwood’s Tale reads less like speculative fiction and more like an appalling worst-case scenario. How far removed are we, really, from the reduction of women to the status of childbearing vessels, allowed no identity, property, family or passions of our own? After all, just in February an Oklahoma legislator asserted that a pregnant woman is just a “host” for the fetus, thereby losing the right to bodily autonomy.

“In the wake of the recent American election, fears and anxieties proliferate,” Atwood writes in the introduction to the newest edition of her novel. “Basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades and indeed the past centuries.” She adds, with a note of hope, that there will always be witnesses like Offred, whose stories will resonate with future generations. Whose warnings may be heard in time.

All we have to do is listen.



Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.